On Tuesday last, Cross Maidan in south Mumbai looked much like it does during the Kanga League, Mumbai’s monsoon cricket tournament. It had rained the previous evening, and the wickets were damp, the outfield squelchy, and cricketers and umpires all huddled in groups in and around the tents, discussing when play could begin.
There was none of the sense of resignation, though, that has come to be associated with the League of late. The cricketers gathered there were schoolboys, and their desire to go out and play was fierce. They were clear that the tournament they were playing, the Harris Shield, was the most important for them in their cricket calendar.
Along with Giles Shield, the tournament for junior schoolboys (set to begin in December), the Harris, meant for senior schoolboys, has been the nursery of Mumbai cricket. Started in 1896, it has been the learning ground where some of India’s biggest cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Vinod Kambli have first made their mark, and the platform that gives schoolboys early lessons in the complexities of the game.
“The Harris Shield is a stepping stone for us. Based on our performances here, we are selected for the Shatkar and the LIC Trophy,” said Prithvi Shaw, 11, a student of Rizvi Springfield, Bandra, who was eagerly waiting with his team-mates for the umpires to call ‘play.’
Shaw shifted to Rizvi from his Versova school three years ago because of its famous cricket team, in much the same way Tendulkar and Kambli moved to Shardashram High School, Dadar, in the 1980s. Today, he plays for Mumbai Under-14 and is talked about, along with schoolmate Armaan Jaffer (13), nephew of Wasim Jaffer, as a future prospect.
He and the other boys got impatient after H S Bhor, secretary of the Mumbai School Sports Association, the organising body, announced that an inspection would be done at 1 pm to see if the pitches were OK.
But there was no frittering of nervous energy. They took knocks alongside the tents and did some catching practice. At 2 pm, it was clear no play would be possible. “An entire day was wasted,” said Shaw.
The disappointment was not carried forward the next day. Both Shaw and Jaffer got centuries (123 and 143 respectively) to help their team enter the semi-finals.
There, they will meet Don Bosco, Matunga, whose left-arm spinner, Vedant Sanghvi — who took 3 for 3 and 3 for 7 against MD Bhatia on Thursday — has already said he’d love to get them out.
Other stories of stiff competition and of the never-say-die spirit of Mumbai cricket have emerged as well, both in the Elite and the Plate divisions of the tournament (the Plate has a 50-over knockout format, and the Elite has league games of three days each).
Don Bosco has played with four left-arm bowlers who have flummoxed batsmen; a diminutive 12-year-old leg-spinner Atish Nair of IES New English School, Bandra, has had the distinction of pocketing 10 wickets in his first game; and off-spinner Lalit Naik of Swami Vivekanand, Borivli, whose parents allowed him to play, despite average scores in exams, only after his coach persuaded them, has been a match-winner for his team.
Ankit Naik (12) of Shardashram lost his father last year, and he and his mother survive on Rs 5,000 a month. His uncle gifted him a cricket kit this year; in the first two games, Naik had taken 12 wickets with his left-arm spin.
So the enthusiasm among schoolboys is intact, and so is the resolve.
But worries have arisen. Is the tournament the same as it was till a decade ago? Why is it not talked about as much as it used to be? Why is the state of grounds and pitches poor? Has the quality of cricket been affected, and is the city producing the kind of talent it did earlier?
Sharad Hazare, 65, former Mumbai wicket-keeper, is a talent scout for the city’s cricket association.
He said, “The level of cricket was very high earlier. There would be a battery of cricketers from Mumbai.” Hazare himself led his Maratha High School team to victory in the Harris in 1962, with team-mates like Eknath Solkar and Ramnath Parkar. “I’m not too sure we produce the same talent today,” he said.
He blamed the slew of tournaments that now fill the schoolboy’s calendar for the drop in quality. Besides Harris and Giles, the Shatkar Trophy, the Kalpesh Koli Memorial tournament, the Vengsarkar Under-14 tournament and the Vijay Merchant trophy, among others, keep schoolboys busy all year around.
According to Madhav Apte, 78, former Test cricketer, too many tournaments leave no time for net practice.
Jaffer Junior should know. He recently missed school matches for the Worli Cup, and his coach, Raju Pathak, is worried that two players who missed games to play the Shatkar might not get to play the semis (November 24 to 26). And the Under-16 tournament starts from November 26.
But Jaffer isn’t complaining. “I just want to play as much cricket as I can,” he said.